The Voices of Tāngata Whaikaha Māori/Disabled People in Prison

In 2021, for the first time, Ara Poutama Aotearoa conducted a survey which allowed the voices of tāngata whaikaha Māori/disabled people to be heard.

Tāngata whaikaha Māori/disabled people generously shared their lived experiences of life in New Zealand prisons. They told us what is working, what is not, and where we can put extra focus and improve services.

This feedback has helped shape the focus and actions of the Disability Action Plan.

What’s working

  • they are generally seen by a nurse within 24 hours of arriving at a site,
  • some people felt they have never been as well informed about their disability,
  • they find that doctors and nurses in prison are supportive and responsive.

“I can honestly say I’ve never been so well supported and informed with my disability. They give good sound advice and I have regular check-ups to maintain my health.“

– Survey respondent, Disability Action Plan engagement

What is not working

  • bed linen, mattresses, and cells are not accessible,
  • responses to requests for support are not always timely,
  • a lack of access to appointments and programmes presents missed opportunities for preventing worsening health and wellbeing.

“Prison staff [need to] get me to appointments and just listen to other prisoners.”

– Survey respondent, Disability Action Plan engagement

Where we can improve

  • have better promotion and prevention of potential health issues,
  • better communication about what support needs people might have when they are transitioning back into the community or transferring to another prison,
  • increased physical accessibility within prisons,
  • have a better understanding of the wider impacts of disability, greater choices in quality services, and supports that meet specific disability needs.

“We need better communication between regional prisons.”

– Survey respondent, Disability Action Plan engagement

The voices of tāngata whaikaha Māori/disabled people, released from prison

These stories are drawn from interviews with a tāngata whaikaha Māori/disabled person previously in prison, and interviews with whānau of another tāngata whaikaha/disabled person formerly in prison.

These anonymised stories are examples of the range of voices that were heard and that inform the actions and focus of the Disability Action Plan.

Kingi’s story

Kingi* (fictitious name) was a young man (22 years old) who had been in prison for approximately one year, he wasn’t sure how long exactly he had been in prison.

He has:

  • a learning difficulty,
  • very low literacy,
  • impaired cognitive functioning,
  • limited English language ability as Te Reo is his first language.

Kingi said that when he went into prison, he really didn’t understand what was happening and he didn’t understand what was happening in the court either.

Some of the guards were mean to him, but he was used to that treatment from people in authority and knew that his bros would stop anything bad from happening to him. Kingi can’t remember doing any classes or courses or interacting with any education, employment or case management people.

He said that people didn’t explain things properly to him, and he felt that he couldn’t ask or didn’t feel safe to ask any questions if he didn’t understand. He knew that if he pretended to understand things and they were important, then his bros would tell him.

He was involved with a gang so he wasn’t worried too much because he knew that whatever prison he went to, there would be some of his bros there. He knew that his bros would stop anything really bad happening to him.

– Kingi’s story

Tony’s story as understood and relayed by his whānau

Tony’s* (fictitious name) whānau said that they were not made aware that he had been arrested and was going up to court until he had been sentenced. He had been living in supported independent living accommodation and saw his support worker for a few hours each week. Sometimes they didn’t connect for various reasons.

His support worker didn’t know that he had been arrested or that he was going to court. Therefore, she was unable to tell his whānau, or the support agency that employed her and provided Tony with accommodation, for several weeks. During this time things had legally taken their own course.

The whānau believe that their tama would not have known what was happening and would not have asked and just gone along with whatever anyone in authority suggested. Tony’s whānau wanted him to be able to access appropriate support for tāngata whaikaha Māori/disabled people (specifically someone with an intellectual disability) not just the generic support.

They believe there were things that happened to him that he didn’t like but he was unable to explain quickly and simply to any of the staff.

Even before he went to prison his whānau believe Tony was let down by

  • his support worker,
  • his service provider,
  • the police and
  • the court system.

– Tony’s whānau telling his story

He didn’t understand or know that he could book an appointment with the health centre and see a nurse. He also believed that what the guards said was the law and could not be questioned or challenged.

No positive intervention happened to support Tony on his journey or to involve his whānau. He now has a criminal record which the whānau believe they may have been able to prevent, with some form of diversion, if they had known earlier what was happening to him.

The whānau said that if we (Ara Poutama Aotearoa) are really serious about people with disabilities being supported differently, then we have to have serious prevention and support discussions, with whānau like them and their tama.

His whānau said that he told them he felt safe in prison and his living conditions were similar to those at his supported accommodation so were not unfamiliar to him.

It seems that he had no ability to make any choices of his own, this upset the whānau but not Tony.

– Tony’s whānau telling his story